CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Thirty-four years ago, the Sunshine State got its first wakeup call from an arriving spacecraft. The space shuttle’s signature twin sonic booms rattled Florida on February 11, 1984 as Challenger made the first-ever Kennedy Space Center landing.
The shuttle crossed the Florida coast near New Port Richey and glided over to Cape Canaveral, where hundreds of reporters had gathered near the 15,000-foot runway. Moments later, at precisely 7:15:55 a.m., Challenger touched down to end the STS-41B mission.
All nine previous space shuttle missions at that point had landed out west; the landing marked the first time a spacecraft returned to the same spaceport where it had launched.
“That was a dream of a touchdown and really a fine landing,” one mission manager observed.
The mission itself had lasted just less than eight days and was marred by the partial failure of two satellite deployments. But it also produced one of NASA’s most iconic images: Astronaut Bruce McCandless took the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) out for a test, making the first untethered spacewalk in spaceflight history.
After landing, the five-man crew walked out of the orbiter beaming in blue flight suits, greeted by a red carpet reading “Welcome back to KSC.”
At the time, NASA officials planned to launch at least one shuttle flight a month amidst an increasingly busy schedule. Landing in Florida saved a precious six to eight days of turnaround time.
Of course, the Challenger disaster in 1986 proved that schedule was too ambitious, and the loss of Columbia 16 years later would lead to the end of the program. But the space shuttles would go on to land at KSC another 77 times before their retirement in 2011.